That brand new charter school? Damian got in. We found out Saturday. Big question: will they be able to provide special ed support (occupational therapy, speech therapy, possible aide in the classroom). A very big question indeed because last year when I was frantically searching for a tolerable kindergarten placement, the head of the progressive charter school I sort of liked told me that they might not be able to provide for his need and then avoided my phone calls as assiduously as a studio executive might avoid a fired-but-doesn't-know-it screenwriter's calls.
So tonight I went to an open house for the school, a chance to ask questions directly to the brand new principal and the founding educator (the woman who has done the most to shape the concept behind the school). I asked each of them the same question: how much ability do you have – financial and otherwise – to support kids with special needs? I liked their answers, which boiled down to: we don't know the particulars yet, but whatever another school can do, we can do. And they both said they'd know more in a few weeks and we could sit down and talk then. Works for me.
As I was entering the small building (a guesthouse-turned-intimate-theater, a wonderfully rococo relic from Old Hollywood), I gave my name to the woman at the table. The man in front of me turned around. "Tamar? I'm Paul!" (Not his real name.) He reminded me where we'd known each other. I think I can be forgiven for forgetting: when I knew him he was still in college and I'd just barely graduated myself. We worked together on my very first editing job in New York. Now we're middle aged, with kids who may be going to the same school next year. He's still in editing; episodic drama, just like Dan. (He remembered Dan from New York too.)
As I stood in the middle of the room, trying to get my bearings and chatting with Paul, a woman leaned forward to look at my nametag. "Tamar? Are you Dan's wife?" She worked with Dan seven years ago, they were both editing on a short-lived TV series and I was pregnant with Damian. Her oldest child is a year younger than Damian and also in kindergarten. It looks like she and her husband are taking the plunge, pulling their son out of private school and trying this new charter school out. Our kids might end up in the same class.
Then, as we were chatting, a man came up. Started talking editing shop with the woman. She introduced me, mentioned Dan. The guy looked at me. "I think I met you. A long time ago." Dan had just gotten bumped up to editor and was interviewing potential assistants. This man came to our apartment for an interview. He ended up getting another gig before Dan had made a decision and so backed out. Now he too is a TV drama editor. His eldest daughter is going to a local Jewish day school. Which school? Oh, the one affiliated with Damian's first preschool experience, before his diagnosis. He and his wife will probably pull her out, send her to this charter school too.
Much later, as I walked out of the building, after hugging the founding parent who is a friend of a friend (and who works on the same show Dan does, though as a writer)(and who went to the same college I did), I chatted with a woman who's deciding whether to send her son to the charter school. She's from New York. She spoke about attitude and decision making and I liked her a lot. Turns out? Her son is in a preschool nearby. Which one? The second one Damian attended, the local one that I pulled him out of after six months because I didn't think they were doing him much good. She gave me the lowdown on the place: apparently it's vastly improved since that year, which sounds like it was the nadir for that school. Good to hear. Also another interweaving of life paths. I didn't ask her if she too was in TV dramatic editing. The coincidence would have been too much for my brain to handle.
All these people were choosing, not between their local public school and this charter school, but between this one and private schools. Progressive, nurturing places, all. The kinds of places I might have chosen for Damian if I'd had that option. Besides wondering how they can all afford $15K a year, I find myself thinking that this speaks well for the place. If people who run from public schools are willing to come back for this one, it bodes well. (And I know they're doing outreach in the poorer communities too, so there will be some ethnic, cultural and economic diversity. Maybe not as much as they'd like at first, but there will be some. And this too is good.)
If we end up in New York (New Jersey) before fall, I'd be a little sad to not experience the place, but the move would have its own – plentiful – rewards, including, I suspect, an excellent school situation there.
If we stay in Los Angeles for any amount of time, one year or two or ten, Damian will attend this school. It will be very good for him and I now think it will be very good indeed for me too. A sense of community finally in this alien sprawl of a city.
I like this. I like having good options, for a change.
It's a funny thing. I have three short stories I feel are strong enough to send out to literary magazines. But do I? Um… well… let's see. I keep a record, I can tell you exactly.
I sent one story out to a few places December 4th.
December 2003, that is. Sent it out to other places February 6th 2004. Sent it out again, along with another story I'd written in the interim, August 2nd. Sent the second story one place last month.
Hot and heavy on the submission front? Not so much.
I like what happens when I send them out, too. Last month I got a rejection letter from Zoetrope that called the second story powerful. Also one from Indiana Review saying the first was seriously considered and asking me to submit again. Both were from that round of submissions this past summer.
Then why don't I send them out more? There are hundreds of small literary magazines out there. A number of them are quite good. If you don't submit, you don't get published. It's a simple algorithm. And yet I don't. When I think about doing it, it feels like a monumental task. Research magazines, print out the stories, put mailing envelopes together. Not a big deal if you do it once, send to one magazine. But if you send out the hundreds of envelopes it probably takes to get a "Yes, we'll take it" call in amongst all the "I really liked it but" letters (not to mention the inevitable form letter rejections), well, that's a lot of envelope licking. Part of the job, right? Part of what it takes to get published in this format, which can lend legitimacy to the writer and in theory make it easier for a book publisher to take you on. Even if it doesn't do that, though, wouldn't it be cool? To have a story published? In print? Flip through the pages, hold it in your hands, know strangers are discovering your words, responding to your creation, isn't that what it's all about?
And yet I don't submit and so can't be published.
Why the hell not?
Woke up this morning to find (thanks to a comment on my blog and then a look at my referrer logs) that the Today Show's all-week coverage of all things autism-related had a direct effect on me, that their very helpful online list of resources included my very own Hidden Laughter journal, the story of Damian's development from before diagnosis to now. Better than coffee (don't drink coffee) (and whoa, don't need it now).
But, um. What was the last entry up there? Some irritable rant about using a child's autism, falsely equating it with musical supergenius? Probably not what people who need a resource are looking for, huh? And I've been meaning to update on Damian and how he's doing at school for a while now. Been busy. Yeah, I know. Some excuse. If I don't write it down, it's gone. Amazing what a little external boost will do. New entry now up. All about how he's doing at school. Well, and at home. Because it's all linked, isn't it?
It's not that I dislike Los Angeles, exactly. In fact, there have even been stretches of time – long stretches, though not recent ones – where I liked this city. Where I enjoyed the stark hills that cradle the sprawl, relished Santa Monica beach and the Venice boardwalk, adored shopping at the farmer's market for fresh fruit year round – outside! In shirt sleeves! In February!, and found the ubiquitous red tile roofs of the Moorish style houses charming and the equally ubiquitous profusion of bird of paradise, agave and lavender (Southwest desert meets Mediterranean seaside) appealing. I still do like all those things. I like aspects of Los Angeles. But, equal and opposite, I feel a desolation here. An unrelenting loneliness and sense of isolation. Is it the human condition in the post-modern world? Maybe so, but I think it's worse here. Anywhere on the West Coast, really, (US and Canada both) and probably in a number of western-edged states. To me, it's all about the automobile. This city – and much of the countryside around it – was built on the assumption of private, individual transportation. Therefore this second largest city in the US was built out rather than up. Relatively few high rises and a whole hell of a lot of sprawl. Yes, where I live we can walk to the store. But why would we? It's not that pretty a walk, and where it is, people aren't out on the sidewalk enjoying the view. There's no crush of humanity when you're all in your cars pulling into the valet station. There's just metal and exhaust and lots and lots of road.
Damian had a play date this afternoon, and as the kids played at being kitties and flying their frogs in Kid Knex rocket ships, his friend's mom and I were chatting. I told her of our plans to vacate this metropolis, vamoose, scram, get out of Dodge. She listened, nodded, contemplated. She asked how long we'd been here. I told her (seventeen years). She said, "And you've never really settled here." Yes. That's it exactly. It no longer feels alien to me, but it also doesn't have the pull of home. It doesn't feel like where I belong. It doesn’t – or I don't – fit.
I can say a lot of negative things about this city's culture and social attitudes. I think some may not be wholly true, just as no sweeping stereotype can capture a mass of people. And in a way I'd like to explore that, if only because my next novel takes place here and I'd like to capture what exactly I feel about this surreal environment, this manmade oasis with its lure of glamour and success and the concurrent and necessary desperate hunger that leaches out of the creaky Yugos and leased Beemers alike as their owners look in the rear view mirror and primp for their next meeting, but also the reality of some very hardworking gardeners who pause and smile so sweetly at the toddler who wanders past to watch with such wide eyes and the reality of people who work well outside the prevailing industry and so haven't taken on the protective coloration therein, who are living their non-glamorous non-hungry lives alongside the confusion of Hollywood. I'd like to put it all down on paper in a way that doesn't fall into the usual clichés, though they're hard to avoid because so many have a ring of truth, or is it that if you say them enough, they become reality? I don't know. Maybe I'll have more of a sense from a distance.
As I contemplate leaving, I also contemplate this city. What is the essence of a place? I find I'd like to understand. If I can. Before I leave, or maybe after. Because I am indeed ready to leave. To go back to a part of the world where I feel at home. But I'd also like to digest these past years, understand where and therefore to some extent who I was and have become.
A friend who knows what she's talking about told me there's a dearth of editors in New York right now. That if Dan could get into the independent feature world, he could work. And work. And work.
And just like that, I realized. It's not so much that I want to move to Toronto. It's that I want to leave Los Angeles. Yes, I still have deep qualms about this country, about a nation that could elect a man and a belief system for a second term who should never have been let near the Oval Office even once, about a nation that seems on the verge of banning all the things I believe in and mandating all the things I loathe. But oh. Man. I love New York. I miss it. I miss, not only the lush green of New England and upstate New York, not only the turn of the century grace of the architecture and the vigor of people constantly moving, constantly interacting, constantly and consistently alive, but I also miss the affect, the attitude, the character of those people. I'm attracted to the idea of Toronto but I worry too. Will I be looking for a similar style and be disappointed when I inevitably don't find it?
So we'll take a trip this spring. First New York and then Toronto. With luck and planning, Dan will have meetings both places, we'll explore the possibilities, testing for viability. Right now I lean heavily toward my native land. Right now I swallow tears at the thought. Can you go home again? I donï¿½t know. I truly and really don't know. But the thought entices. Oh, how it entices.
In more concrete terms:
Toronto plusses: Cheaper real estate. A better social safety net. A sane government and population.
Toronto minuses: Less support services for Damian should he continue to need that or perhaps need it once again down the road (middle school comes to mind, that social quagmire). No built-in community; we'd feel isolated at first and maybe for a long time thereafter.
Toronto unknowns: The character of the people. The quality of the work options for Dan. The nature of the school system: traditional or progressive?
New York/New Jersey plusses: A work niche for Dan that feels exactly right (in my opinion, anyway). A built-in network of family and friends in the greater metropolitan area, as well as relatives and available country/beach retreats all along the Eastern Seaboard. A school system in the town we'd consider that sounds fan-fucking-tastic (experiential learning, anyone?). And New Jersey is known for its great special needs support. Plus, see above. Feels like home.
New York/New Jersey minuses: Still in the USA.
New York/New Jersey unknowns: Would we find a community we fit into in that town we like? Would Dan be able to sustain a career for the long haul there? Will this country fall (further) into totalitarianism?
I believe, here and now, as I write this, that we will move. That we will leave this city of sunshine and palm trees. I believe that either option will suit us better than here. I believe that we will make a huge change in our lives, and relatively soon. I believe we'll know the right one to make. (I suspect it'll be New York.)
In general, I like Damian's school. It's a friendly place, the teachers seem compassionate and fun, he's having a good time. But more and more I find things that bother me. And more and more I realize that what Iï¿½m seeing is not a fault of the particular school but of the school system as a whole. Or, well, fault may be the wrong word. Let's just say a mindset that I don't fully embrace.
An example: I went in for parent-teacher conferences back in November, I believe. The teacher said Damian's doing well. He's right where he should be with reading comprehension, for example: he knows all his letters. Say what? He's READING. First grade level, at least. Real, albeit short, books. I mentioned this. The teacher said, "I wouldn't know." She only can test him in one way. And it doesn't really matter to her ï¿½ to the school, to the system ï¿½ that he can do better. Challenge him? Teach him at his level? Um, why? That would take differentiated instruction, we don't have time for that.
Okay. Well, we can continue to give him real books at home, I guess. And he likes school. I know he does. He thinks his teacher is funny. Which she is. She has a good heart, too. This is not her fault. Not the school's either, they have a curriculum they have to implement. They do a good job of it. No, this is simply the way the system is designed.
Another example: I picked Damian up from school a few weeks ago. He was holding a triangle on a stick. Tommy Triangle, apparently. Why? They're learning about ï¿½ wait for it ï¿½ shapes. Um, yeah. Five-and-six year olds. Do any of them really not know the difference between a circle and a square? They're spending weeks on this curriculum rather than any of the myriad more interesting, valuable and perhaps even educational subjects they could choose? Say what? What are they going to learn next? Colors? Man.
One more example: Today I stood chatting with another mom after I dropped Damian off. She knows about his diagnosis (I'm perhaps too up front about it, but her kid has play dates with Damian and, well, I wanted to be straight about it all). She was telling me about how I should volunteer to work in the classroom, that I could then see what goes on and my fears would be assuaged. She said Damian fits in well, does fine. I said, "Well, sure, I know the teacher says he answers readily when she calls on him, but he doesn't ever raise his hand and volunteer his own thoughts." She laughed, then explained. None of the kids volunteer their own thoughts. That's not what it's like in there. It's a one woman show. The teacher instructs by entertaining, she presents the curriculum in a lively and engaging way, but the kids are really just sitting there, listening and observing. Oh, she calls on them, asks questions, makes sure they're understanding the lesson. She's a good teacher. But this is not interactive learning. This is passive.
Damian has learned a few things this year. He knows the legend behind Chinese New Year, for example, and he learned a dab and a dash about Martin Luther King. His table work and homework have been a godsend because it's enabled him ï¿½ no, forced him ï¿½ to get used to writing, coloring, and gluing, things he'd heretofore avoided like a fifth grader avoids cooties. But I don't believe in this style of education for him. For anyone, really, but especially not for him. Passive is easy, passive doesn't stretch him. Only active, engaged, hands-on, challenging kinds of lessons will help him grow into the man I know he can become.
But we can't afford any of the wonderful progressive private schools in town (and they might not accept him with a diagnosis anyway), and I would go out of my mind if I homeschooled, as would he ï¿½ he learns more readily from anyone else but Mommy (though Iï¿½m tempted even so). So what's left? Do we go the distance with this passive, impersonal learning style? Am I simply overreacting? Maybe I am and maybe he'll be fine over the next few years at his current school. After all, we may be in Toronto by third grade, and anyway, maybe this is just my idealistic parent mindset and there's nothing wrong here. Damian certainly doesn't mind not being challenged to grow. But it doesn't sit right with me.
As it happens, I know of a brand new charter school opening next year near here. It's based on a constructivist, hands-on model like the magnet school I so desperately wanted to get Damian into last year; in fact, the two schools are in touch, the established site sharing information with the new one to get them up to speed faster. This new place sounds perfect, at least on paper. I do of course realize that the first year (or more) of a new institution might be rough around the edges, might involve lots of kinks and knots and puzzles as they figure out how to run a brand new school. But I also know now that the most important elements of my child's education are the philosophy and the teacher. I don't know if they've hired teachers yet, but their philosophy is wonderful. We're going to apply on Damian's behalf, see what happens.
Almost done with this pass of my novel. Am more than a little obsessed. Am also more than a little depressed, which I think has mostly to do with the events within the novel. Sometimes when I'm writing I engulf or rather am engulfed by the mood of what I write, like a chameleon taking on the coloration of a given rock or glen. I'm green and mottled today and terribly cloudy. I am also just about fifty pages from the end of this draft. So maybe sad too, this mood. This story will no longer be solely mine after this. It will belong to a small set of readers and then (after rewrites) to my agent and then (after rewrites) perhaps to editors in dingy or overbright rooms in fifth or tenth floor office suites in midtown Manhattan buildings. My manuscript. From my mind. And then someday maybe I'll hold it in my hands again, a book. But from here to there, so fraught. So many eyes. So much hope and therefore fear too. If and Maybe and Will It? And oh, this book, these words from me to you, the collective You, but also really to me because it gives me pleasure and pride and also pain mixed in. Like today. Cloudy and mottled in my head, chance of clearing tomorrow. The manuscript is and is not me. It leaves me soon. It becomes Other. Grows wings?
I guess it's inevitable, but I still don't really understand it.
I've been sick since Monday. A strange kind of sick, the kind where you lie in bed and think, "Oh, this isn't so bad, I can get up and make dinner," and then you get up and realize, no, it really is that bad and lie down again. So I only got up when I had to. Dinner was microwave-thawed chicken soup Monday, roast chicken Tuesday (recipe: throw chicken and veggies in roasting pan, close oven, go back to bed), and leftover chicken the rest of the week. On Monday or maybe Tuesday (time blurs when you're feeling icky) I went to pick Damian up, got into a tiff with the speech therapist (important lesson: don't talk to people when you're sick, you might tell them things in a less than diplomatic manner). Came home and went back to bed. Pretty much the story of my week.
That's not the inevitable part, though I suppose it is. Sick happens. Shivers and sweats and snotty noses. Our bodies are vulnerable. Our bodies tell us sometimes: lie down, turn off your brain, tune out your life. And we obey. Or we don't and we pump ourselves full of over the counter take-the-yuck-away medications and muddle through as best we can. I chose the former this week, knowing full well what a luxury it was. But by Thursday – and this is the inevitable part – when I stood outside the kindergarten yard waiting for Damian and trying not to stand too close to anyone and certainly not to sneeze on them, a fellow mom told me I should go to the doctor. The next day she told Dan, "She should really go see a doctor." She herself had been sick the week before and only gotten better after she'd gotten medicine. I should do the same. Clearly.
I don't understand this thinking. Or, rather, I do. We expect answers to all our questions these days, quick solutions for all our problems. Pills for all our woes. We're an immediate gratification, an "if it's broken or if you even suspect that it might be broken, throw it away and buy a new one" culture. Get a cold? Take an antibiotic. So what if it's not bacterial, clearly nothing deadly, so what if a week really isn't that long to let a virus run its course? It's too long, you should be up and running, getting ahead in the treadmill of life (and yes, that’s an intentionally broken metaphor). You can't wait for your body's natural defenses to kick in. Let the doctor mend you. Let the body mechanic do his magic. Because everybody knows you can't trust nature to take care of itself.
I didn't go to the doctor. Guess what? I feel better today. Not run-the-Boston-Marathon better, not even get-back-on-the-Nordic-Track better, but better enough to sit at my desk and pay bills, better enough to collect laundry for a wash, better enough to participate in dishwashing. Better. No medicine. Just the body doing its job to fight a mundane virus.
I was fixing dinner. Damian was in the laundry room. I overheard him talking to the cats: "I'll show you who's boss around here!"
"I think they know who's boss, Damian."
"Yeah, me. I'm boss."
A beat, in which I tried not to imagine the things he was doing to the cats. (For what it's worth, I heard no yowls.) Then I heard his voice again. "I like being boss."
"I can understand that. It's nice to be boss."
He thought about it some more. "Maybe when I grow up I'll be a drummer and an inventor and a director too, because I like being boss and directors get to be boss." Another pause while he contemplated being an adult. "If I still like being boss when I'm grown up."
I suspect he will. Like it, that is. Direct? Who knows?
Anonymous postcards sent to a stranger with a deep secret written (and sometimes illustrated) therein and then displayed on a gallery wall as well as a website for the world to see, nobody knowing it's yours? It tickles the voyeur in each of us, that part of us that wants to see how someone else really and truly feels. And some are as dark as you'd expect. Others, not so much.
I think my favorite postcard is this:
Sometimes I still keep one eye open after I've supposedly gone to sleep just in case my stuffed animals come to life.
How can you not love that admission? In the present tense, no less.